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Hawks face big decisions with Smith, Childress

ATLANTA - Josh Smith and Josh Childress were considered franchise cornerstones for the Atlanta Hawks four years ago.

Both players might be gone in a couple of weeks.

With NBA free agency beginning at today, Smith and Childress are likely to draw interest from several teams, but the Hawks have rights to match any offers when the signing period begins July 9.

'We're absolutely, without a doubt, very committed to keeping both as Hawks players for the long haul,' Michael Gearon Jr., one of the team's owners, said after Atlanta earned its first playoff appearance in nine years.

'We believe in them and think they're a critical part of this team and that they're going to be part of this franchise for a long time.'

Rick Sund, hired from Seattle as the Hawks' general manager six weeks ago, refused interview requests on Monday.

The team's agenda, however, seems clear: After pushing the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics to a seventh game in the first round of the playoffs, Atlanta has a legitimate chance to compete for a division title next season.

Shooting guard Joe Johnson and point guard Mike Bibby give the Hawks two veteran starters with postseason experience, but Atlanta has an unmistakable nucleus of young players.

Center Al Horford, coming off an impressive rookie season, is the centerpiece. Forward Marvin Williams has finally learned how to hold his ground defensively and when to pull up for a 15-foot jumper.

With Bibby, the Hawks can afford to let point guard Acie Law learn his position slowly after nagging injuries affected his rookie season.

But losing Smith, 22, and Childress, 25, in free agency could really hurt a team that didn't have a pick in last week's draft.

Sund, coach Mike Woodson and the ownership group must decide how much long-term money to commit to Smith, who could command a deal worth $11 million per year with an unmatched mix of athleticism, durability and shot-blocking skills in the free agent market.

Reports from Philadelphia and Detroit have speculated the last week about the possibility of Smith leaving Atlanta, his hometown, to sign with the 76ers or Pistons. He averaged a career-high 17.2 points last season. Smith's 2.8 blocks per game trailed only Denver's Marcus Camby.

Childress has settled into a sixth-man role with the Hawks that would pay a lower salary, but the former No. 6 overall pick from Stanford might interest veteran teams looking for a reserve guard who is an underrated defender and a respected rebounder.

It might make sense, though, for Smith, who grew up in nearby Marietta and entered the NBA straight from high school, to stay in Atlanta. After all, he and Childress finally made it to the playoffs after Woodson led the team to a 69-177 record over their first three seasons.

Why walk away now?

'Of course I want to stay with this team,' Smith said before the playoff series against Boston. 'I grew up a Hawks fan. They're my hometown team. As a free agent, you're going to listen to what other clubs have to offer, but I hope to be here for a long time. We'll just have to see.'